The significance of the Coventry Blitz

An essay by Bill Brookes, 2010.

The Coventry Blitz was a tragedy which will never be forgotten by the people of Coventry. I am a 'Coventry Kid' myself, and am only alive today because my ancestors were lucky enough to survive the horror of the Coventry Blitz.

Having grown up in Coventry, it still comes as no surprise that people are finding bombs and shells left over from WW2. As a teenager I was shown by my grandfather the site where an anti-aircraft gun had been stationed, a street away from where I played as a child. As an adult, even after all these decades since the war, I have witnessed Coventry shops being evacuated and have been caught up in traffic jams due to leftover German explosives being discovered.

As a young adult I recall my grandmother telling me what the Blitz on Coventry was like. She was a civilian, and like her friends and neighbours in Coventry, was targeted by the German bombers on the Night of the Blitz, 14 November 1940. Other cities, frequently London, had been blitzed before, but nothing like the devastation which was to be inflicted upon the citizens of Coventry in that one night.

The severity of the Coventry Blitz was due to the concentration of bombing in a small area, and also the length of time the raid lasted. Hour after hour, German bombs rained down upon Coventry. Through the night, the Luftwaffe targeted the city as it burned, thwarting attempts to save the lives of Coventry families or to extinguish burning homes, churches and buildings.

The aim of the Coventry Blitz

In my opinion, the aim of the raid 'Operation Sonata' on Coventry appears to have been an act of terror, intended to destroy 'soft targets', as well as targeting the engineering factories in the city. Over 4000 civilian homes were destroyed that night, along with the famous cathedral, churches, hospitals and irreplaceable historic buildings from Coventry’s medieval past. Coventry was bombed many times during the war, but Moonlight Sonata was different.

A ‘soft target’ is a military term, the definition of which would most certainly include the deliberate targeting of a population centre. The bombing of Coventry was designed to destroy civilian as well as legitimate military targets, in order to destroy the morale of the city’s civilian population, and by extension, Britain as a whole.

The city centre factories which were destroyed in Coventry were surrounded by civilian housing. Larger factories away from the city centre were more legitimate targets, yet those were back up and running within weeks.

German military intelligence had accurate maps for Coventry, so the Luftwaffe knew that the inner city they were bombing was a population centre, full of small businesses, shops, market stalls, housing, pubs, schools, and churches, all crammed close together. It is hard to deny that the huge concentration of firepower in such a small area for so many hours on the Night of the Blitz was designed to destroy all of these things.

Thought by some historians to be an act of retaliation for the RAF bombing of Munich a week earlier, the night-long air raid on Coventry was intended to kill and injure civilians and destroy their homes and livelihoods. Wave after wave of bombs were dropped on the burning city. The severity of the Blitz was designed to inflict psychological trauma on the survivors, hoping to ‘break their spirit’, leaving Coventry families struggling to survive the winter, and weakening Britain’s war effort by draining resources to feed and aid the survivors.

Did Churchill know about the Coventry Blitz?

There is a well known story that Churchill deliberately sacrificed Coventry to the Luftwaffe. The story goes that he was given military intelligence beforehand that a huge air raid was coming, and that Coventry was the target. However, in order to conceal that Britain could intercept and interpret German codes, there was no increase in Coventry’s air defences that night, and crucially, no evacuation of the city – thus dooming hundreds of Coventry folk.

I believe this story to be an urban legend. Decades after the war, Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham claimed that the word 'Coventry' was transmitted unencrypted in an intercepted message, which seems dubious when the German military used code names for British cities. There appears to be no evidence to substantiate this claim. I have also read accounts that the code name of the target city was known as 'Corn', but Britain did not know to which city this code name referred.

It seems unlikely that we will ever see any clear evidence to prove or disprove the theory that Coventry was sacrificed by Churchill. However, what is certain is that Coventry families lost life, limb, homes and everything they had worked for, due to the Blitz. The sacrifice made by the people of Coventry was huge. The fact that Coventry survived the destruction of the Night of the Blitz is a testament to the courage and resilience of the survivors, and the hard work of everyone who pitched in to help the victims survive and rebuild.

Morale after the Blitz

Goebbels and the enemy propaganda machine used the word Coventrate (Coventriert in German) to describe this level of destruction of towns and cities – to devastate a population centre from the air. Another definition I have read is 'the indiscriminate mass-murder of civilians'. It seemed that Germany was gloating about the hell they had created for the citizens of Coventry.

The initial shock and despair in Coventry did not last. On Saturday 16th November, 1940, King George VI visited Coventry to see the ruined city for himself, and to show support for the victims. Food rationing was temporarily lifted. Survivors began to rebuild their lives. Despair turned to outrage, then determination to stand proud despite the German attacks.

I read online that the first air raid of WW2 upon Britain was when Germany bombed the dockyard in Rosyth, Scotland in 1939. Air raids escalated in severity after that date, with legitimate military strikes turning into carpet-bombing.

I have also read online several sites showing the same propaganda article claiming that England, not Germany were the first to use terror bombing against a civilian population. The sites appear intended to figure highly in search engine results when people search for 'who started the blitz'. Historically, the 1939 Warsaw bombings made by Germany marked the start of the Blitz, when the Luftwaffe made around 1150 bombing sorties upon Warsaw's civilian population as a terror raid during their attack on Poland. So, despite the drivel you might read elsewhere, Germany started the Blitz.

Germany expected the British public to despair following the Coventry Blitz. Instead, after the initial shock and disbelief passed, the British attitude seemed to be ‘We must never let this happen again’. Whatever actions the RAF took following November 14th, 1940, they were seen as retaliating against Germany. One can easily imagine British pilots having seen or heard about the devastation of Coventry, and thinking ‘we must not let this happen to my home town’.

Following the war, Coventry was rebuilt. The symbol of the phoenix rising from the ashes became symbolic for Coventry. I can remember seeing it as a young child on the floor of Coventry precinct, and my father explaining to me why it is there.

Battle of Britain: A Day-by-day Chronicle by Patrick Bishop

After the fall of France in 1940, Hitler turned his attention to Germany's sole remaining enemy: Great Britain. His plans to invade Britain depended on crippling Britain's Royal Air Force. In July the Luftwaffe, the German air force, began its attempt to bomb Britain into submission - the resulting conflict was known as the Battle of Britain.

Patrick Bishop tells the story of Britain's fight for national survival. Battle of Britain offers a concise, day-by-day narrative account of the battle along with illustrations, eye-witness accounts, documents, posters and timelines. Every aspect of the battle is covered from multiple points of view providing a unique and gripping account of the battle, the men and women who fought it, and the world of the 1940s